Recruiting and Retention: Low Empathy Workplaces Are Not Attractive

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

In a new Harris Poll, 78% of hiring decision-makers say their organization has taken action on workplace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). This is good news. Organizations need to demonstrate to employees that they can expect DEI to be more than “talk”.

But it’s important that, when organizations take action, it’s the right actions. I recently came across a report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) titled “Empathy: DE&I’s Missing Piece”. The report is a part of SHRM’s Together Forward @Work initiative. I thought the report was direct in terms of their findings. More than 9 out of 10 people surveyed said that empathy was essential for a healthy workplace culture.

To help us understand more about how organizations can bring empathy into their DEI efforts, I reached out to Alexander Alonso, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, Chief Knowledge Officer for SHRM. I got to know Alex several years ago when it was leading the rollouts of the SHRM competency model and SHRM credentialing program. I had the chance to chat with him then about the SHRM competency model and I’m delighted to welcome him back to talk about workplace inclusion and empathy.

Welcome back, Alex! One of the statistics from the SHRM report that really hit me hard was that over half of employees believe that their organization would lie to employees if it would benefit the business. If HR gets feedback like that directly from an employee, what steps or actions can they take?

[Alonso] First off, let’s own the truth that lying is a serious issue. That said, our research shows it is an issue that is linked to workplaces that lack empathy or do not demonstrate empathy—both of which erode trust. Lying is one action that erodes trust.

Alex Alonso SHRM Headshot

HR can and should take the lead on resolving reports from staff by taking steps to discover the merits, accuracy, and authenticity of each report. For example, lying may mean different things to different people so it will be important for HR to ask for examples of behaviors and statements to understand why an employee equates the behaviors or statements to lying to benefit the business. Disingenuous behavior and making false statements (or statements that are believed to be inaccurate or false by employees) should be addressed swiftly.

But, HR needs to understand if there is a disconnect between something that is truly false, and something the employee perceives to be a lie because, for example, a leader has access to a higher level of information or confidential information than employees have. Is the example given that the company said something one day but then said something different on the same topic the next day? In other words, HR has an obligation to seriously consider reports from staff, investigate to discover the why behind the report, determine the nature and extent of the problem, propose a solution, get buy-in on the solution, and then act. Putting a process in place that does these things will help rebuild trust rather than undermine it.

In the report, you were quoted as saying, “Empathy is a key lever in driving toxicity out of the organization…”. How can HR professionals help organizational leaders understand why empathy is important to DE&I?

[Alonso] I’m reminded of the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm. Workplaces have this same obligation.

Consider words that are associated with the word ‘toxic’: poison, harm, venom. Now consider what the research says about workplaces that combat toxic cultures by showing empathy and allowing it to infuse the workplace. The hallmarks that demonstrate empathy serve to build inclusion and fight against dysfunctional workplaces and exclusion. By understanding what causes a toxic culture, HR can turn the organization onto an inclusive path by focusing on how its employees can and should demonstrate the common characteristics of empathy in daily interactions:

  • Be kind instead of inconsiderate.
  • Seek to understand rather than judge.
  • Be welcoming instead of condescending.
  • Actively consider others’ viewpoints rather than staying within your comfort zone.
  • Be fair, reasonable, and impartial rather than biased or predisposed in your views.

These do not imply weakness. These are strengths. Consider what we also know about what nearly all employees think about empathy: it is an essential quality of a healthy workplace culture – 97% of respondents to our research said this. This is why an organization must step up to the imperative and hold its employees and leaders accountable for their views and behaviors. If you don’t like what you see, set a new standard, and broadly communicate expectations about contributing to healthy culture by demonstrating empathy instead of destroying the culture by being toxic.

Empathy is such an important topic, but I believe it’s very hard to teach. It’s often confused with sympathy. How can organizations teach empathy and hold people accountable for being empathetic?

[Alonso] I think you are right that many conflate the two terms. But empathy is different than sympathy because it inherently requires an individual to gain understanding of another by understanding and finding a way to relate to that individual’s viewpoint. That’s akin to walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. You can’t be empathetic without understanding the other person’s experiences. So, a starting point could be to inform your people managers what benefits the organization derives from its employees being empathetic.

Our study showed that only half of organizations offer training on building and demonstrating empathy. In my view, an organization would approach this training need like any other – conduct a gap analysis to determine where your staff falls short of your expectations then train to those needs.

That said, however, this approach may also require having the difficult conversations internally first to ensure the team understands what the organization expects of its leaders. Why start with leaders? Start there because adopting an attitude of empathy will trickle down throughout the staff if there is ownership for empathy and empathetic behavior at the top. Showing the benefits to the employees through a training program that highlights the benefits to all building that kind of culture. It will naturally drive competitive advantage as well, according to our research.

What can an individual say to someone who feels that demonstrating empathy is considered a “weakness”?

[Alonso] I agree it is true that empathy may have been equated with weakness until now. However, I think the evidence shows the tide is turning, and we don’t have the luxury of holding onto that perception if we want to build an inclusive and viable workplace culture.

I would also counter that assertion with the evidence we have gathered that shows how empathetic workplaces improve an organization’s competitive advantage. Being empathetic can no longer be just about doing the right thing and treating employees considerately. What does that evidence say? Companies with low empathy are having difficulty recruiting and retaining talent and struggle with inclusion, equity, and diversity. Low-empathy workplaces are not attractive to employees of diverse backgrounds. There also needs to be an increase in training specifically geared toward requiring people managers to learn what being empathetic means, and how to demonstrate it in daily interactions with their staff.

Last question. When I was reading the report, I was reminded of your book “The Price of Pettiness: Bad Behavior in the Workplace and How to Stomp it Out”. Without giving away your whole book, can you share one thing that individuals – at every level of the organization – can do to minimize petty behavior?

[Alonso] An individual’s actions may impose unintended boundaries that influence one’s destiny—in the workplace and personally. Petty behavior has the potential to affect or alter one’s life, and most likely that will occur in a negative way and could have far-reaching consequences. Break the cycle to avoid these consequences. If you are someone who tends to be petty, recognize that you have an equal ability to overcome that tendency. Commit to growing as an individual into a better edition of your current self.

A HUGE thanks to Alex for sharing his insights with us about the report and how empathy can benefit us on an individual and organizational level. I hope you’ll check out the SHRM report and Alex’s book on the price of pettiness.

Organizations that truly want to make a positive impact on DEI need to do more than just talk. And they need to do more than a generic training program. Providing employees with an opportunity to build empathy is good for them and good for the company.

P.S. The SHRM Annual Conference is coming up soon! September 9-12, 2021 in Las Vegas and it will also have a virtual option. Alex will be co-presenting a session on “Earning Your SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP: Tips for Testing” with Nancy Woolever, vice president of certification operations. And yours truly is scheduled to facilitate a seminar on “Talent Acquisition: Creating Your Organization’s Strategy”. Details, including SHRM’s protocols for a safe event, are located on their website. Check it out and we hope to see you there!

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